Paul Auster vs. Bob Dylan

Presentation / Essay (Pre-University), 1999

10 Pages, Grade: 15 Points


(a) What view of life in America and the idea of the American Dream is expressed in Bob Dylan’s song?

(b) Compare Bob Dylan’s song with Paul Auster’s novel “MR. VERTIGO”. (Study contents and language.)

(a) As Bob Dylan is an American singer-songwriter and poet, the texts he writes often deal with different aspects of the American Dream. Dylan, as a musician, has often been called not only a folk-singer, but also a singer of ‘protest songs’. Therefore, it deserves mentioning that in his songs, Dylan often has a critical look at the notion of the American Dream and compares the dream with real life in America. So, Dylan’s concept of the American Dream is rather a ‘nightmare’, as his social criticism brings to light many negative aspects of the notion.

In his folk ballad “A HARD RAIN’S A GONNA FALL” Dylan presents - by the means of a very poetic and symbolic language - a critical view of the American society. His intention is to convey a certain message to the audience, namely that it is necessary to realise the deficiency of social security, for example, or the failure of the American Dream in general.

As the lyrics at issue are taken from a protest song, it is only natural that the negative aspects prevail. That is how the marked imbalance between positive and negative elements can be explained.

(b) Surprisingly, there are many ways in which Bob Dylan’s song can be compared with Paul Auster’s novel “MR. VERTIGO”, although the structure of a novel is quite different from the lyrics of a song.

Both the folk ballad and the novel deal with a certain theme, namely the concept of the American Dream and how (or if at all) this dream can come true.

Both Auster and Dylan are contemporary Americans. [They are both of Jewish origin, too, but this is rather unimportant for the interpretation of their work.] Dylan’s early songs date from the 1960s, while Auster’s novel was first published in 1994. Yet this difference doesn’t affect the analysis of their texts which is to be given here.

As the “American Dream” is quite a vague concept with a variety of defining elements, it is easy to understand that the two writers concentrate on several elements without mentioning each one of them.

One aspect of the American Dream that is included in both works is the idea of movement. “MR. VERTIGO” tells the story of Walt’s and the master’s long journey through the whole country, and the narrator gives a detailed description of the geography of the USA. The narrator of the song also seems to have travelled a lot, yet he doesn’t give any precise information about where exactly he has been. In both cases, the readers/the audience get an impression of the huge and wide landscape of the US, but there is a marked difference in the effect the description has on the reader: Auster’s major characters (Walt and Master Yehudi) enjoy for a certain time the freedom of their life ‘on the road’; it is the happiest time in Walt’s life. By contrast, in the first stanza of the song, Dylan evokes the image of a wide country in which the individual almost gets lost. It is a depressing and very sad atmosphere which is created here.

In addition to that, one gets the impression that Dylan ironically makes fun of the traditional American ‘pioneer spirit’: there aren’t any new frontiers to discover, as the ‘lonely wanderer’ has seen “twelve misty mountains”, “six crooked highways”, “seven sad forests” and “a dozen dead oceans”1. [It is quite interesting to see how the poet changes the originally neutral meaning of the nouns (all of them refer to the wide American countryside and to the feeling of freedom generally linked with it, so the tendency is even rather positive than neutral) by adding adjectives which give an intensive negative connotation to each element of this ‘enumeration’.]

Obviously, there is a different challenge now: after all the geographical frontiers have been discovered, the American population now has to face the new challenge of solving the nation’s social problems (which are mentioned in the following stanzas of the song).

Auster’s description of moving and travelling is a more positive one: Walt’s and the master’s journey brings about true happiness and a genuine ‘pioneer spirit’2. [Walt: “We were back in the land of big skies and flat, dreary expanses (...)”]3 Actually, the theme of moving/travelling is an important one in the novel, if not even a defining element of Auster’s work in general (cf. his novel “MOON PALACE”4 ).

When considering the contents of the song “A HARD RAIN’S A GONNA FALL” and the novel “MR. VERTIGO”, a great difference in the view of the American Dream has to be mentioned: Unlike Bob Dylan, Paul Auster holds a more optimistic view of the concept of the American Dream. There is much evidence to be found in the lyrics of the song that in Bob Dylan’s opinion the Dream has been destroyed - in fact, Dylan draws the picture of a sad world in which the American Dream has no chance of coming true at all. The imagery the poet employs to create this atmosphere of sadness, loneliness and destruction also helps to convey Dylan’s message. For example, he sees the American Dream as “a new born babe with wild wolves around it” (l.12), that means the baby’s innocence is being spoilt by the wolves; the child is born into a world of cruelty and aggression. (It is quite likely that the “babe” will not survive, as there is no one in the wilderness to care for it but the wolves. In a figurative sense this means that Dylan is not convinced that the American Dream will survive.)

According to Dylan, both (1) material and (2) spiritual aspects of the Dream have not come true so far.

He describes:

(1) “a highway of gold with nobody on it”; “a white ladder all covered with water” (ll. 13 and 16) and “the song of a poet who died in the gutter” (l.28); he calls America a country “where the people are many and their hands are all empty” (l.47) and “where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten” (l.51)
(2) “a black branch with blood that kept dripping”, “a room full of men with their hammers a-bleeding” (ll. 14 -15); the narrator has seen “guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children” (l.18) and “a white man who walked a black dog” (l.36); America is a country “where the executioner’s face is always well hidden” (l.50).

These examples indicate that Bob Dylan doesn’t believe in (1.) personal success or material wealth. He denies these two aspects of the American Dream.5 In his opinion, the “ladder of success” (cf. Benjamin Franklin!) is slippery and the way to prosperity is long and dangerous. Material wealth is not accessible to every American citizen or to every immigrant who comes to America. The examples listed above show the poet’s criticism of the American Dream in what concerns the material aspects. They seem to prove Dylan’s point that the old notion of the Dream is nothing but a myth. Actually, the “highway of gold” remains something unreal, nobody is able to walk on it. (This example also reminds of the gold rush which took place in the late 1840s in California and which attracted lots of immigrants who dreamed of becoming rich.)

Furthermore, Dylan is convinced that there isn’t such thing as a ‘rise from rags to riches’ (cf. footnote #5!), or that at least such a fortune is reserved for a very small minority. As an example, he mentions “the song of a poet who died in the gutter” (l.28). Obviously, this poet hasn’t been successful, he couldn’t earn a living by making songs. In addition to this aspect, Dylan also includes the problem of social security into his criticism of the American society. The singer also protests against the wide-spread indifference of the upper and middle classes (those who are well off) towards the poor.

Dylan bitterly complains that, in America, “hunger is ugly” (l.51), that means that the wealthy people not only refuse to feed the hungry, but they even walk away from the poor in disgust. I got the impression that Dylan criticises hypocrisy (and perhaps complacency) among US-Americans: the living conditions in their country are above average, they support countries of the so-called “Third World” by sending food and machines and money, but they fail to realise that there are enough social problems to solve in their own country! [This example reveals the double standards of morality that have been established in modern American society since the First World War, when America became the leading power in the world (economically and politically seen) and offered credit to the European countries.]

Apart from this, Dylan seems to have lost faith in the promising (2.) spiritual aspects of the American Dream. His concept of the Dream contrasts sharply with the early American view of the notion as presented for example in Edward Hicks’ painting “PEACEABLE KINGDOM”, which dates from 1830.

In his song, Bob Dylan denounces “American values” such as liberty and personal freedom or the idea of a multicultural society as hollow words. For example, the singer criticises that there is still racial segregation and even discrimination in America (cf. l.36: “I met a white man who walked a black dog”). If one takes into consideration the fact that Bob Dylan wrote this song in the 1960s, it becomes more obvious why the songwriter criticizes the situation of black people in the USA that sharply: slavery and slave trade were abolished after the Civil War in 1865, and that was almost exactly 100 years before “A hard rain’s a gonna fall” was written! In this case, the historical background gives us a hint as to the message the singer-songwriter wants to convey. What Dylan complains about is that black people in America still have to fight for their rights; their social position is not equal to the one of white Americans. [Actually, the Civil Rights movement reached its peak during the 1960s (Martin Luther King, Malcolm X).] America once was a nation where slaves - human beings! - were bought and sold like objects (→ “a room full of men with their hammers a-bleeding”, l.15). Later, the Ku Klux Klan began to commit most violent and cruel crimes against black people6 (“where the executioner’s face is always well hidden”, l.50 ==> this line might refer to the clansmen who used to wear hoods in order to hide their faces, or to death penalty, which exists in many states of the USA). But even today (i.e. in the 1990s), it seems as if black people (or people of other races living in America) still haven’t achieved full equality in the way how they are treated. (Of course, they are all equal by law!)

Another element included into Dylan’s criticism is the fact that Americans still cannot live together in peaceful harmony (and seem never to have done so at all): back in the days of the pioneers, self-justice and lynching scenes were wide-spread (“I saw a black branch with blood that kept dripping”, l.14) - and today, every person is allowed to buy and carry a gun at the age of 16 (“I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children”, l.18). That’s how violence proliferates.

Maybe the line quoted above also refers to the Vietnam war in which America got involved in 1962. In fact, very young American soldiers were sent there. Many Americans were against the intervention of the USA in this war. There were lots of protests against the war both in America and in Europe, particularly in the late 1960s. This historical fact also contrasts with Hicks’ vision of togetherness and all-pervasive peace. Bob Dylan mentions this event of American history in order to prove that central elements of the American Dream have not come true (and may even be considered as unrealistic!).

I think Dylan’s statement even implies a criticism of the way America sees itself, namely as the world’s leading power. (This notion is also called manifest destiny and forms another constitutive element of the American Dream!) Dylan doubts that the USA should play the role of ‘the world’s police’, because America has got vices and evils, as well (cf. the hypocrisy and double standards of morality mentioned on page 4). I find it quite hypocritical that the US fight for human rights (where foreign countries are concerned), but don’t even give appropriate homes to the Native Americans, who have to live in small reservations (related to the huge country they once ‘possessed’) (cf. “Where the home in the valley meets the dark dirty prison” (?), l.49).

To draw a conclusion, I’d like to stress that Bob Dylan’s protest song contains a completely negative view of the American Dream, bitterly uttered by an American citizen who appears to be deeply disappointed by the whole (so-called ‘democratic’) system, and expressed by many impressive metaphors and symbols. In Dylan’s opinion, it is quite unlikely that the Dream will ever come true, unless the Americans change their behaviour and make an effort to realize the Dream. The singer’s intention is to warn the people, to make them think and act differently. (Yet he doesn’t seem to expect that he’ll be successful: “I heard ten thousand whispering and nobody listening”, l.26; “I heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter”, l.28).

I’ve already pointed out that Paul Auster’s approach to the idea of the American Dream is a different one. It is more ambivalent, as Auster respects the dualism of dream and nightmare: he presents a generally positive view of the notion, but doesn’t fail to include a certain criticism of the Dream (in a more subtle way than Dylan does).

Like Bob Dylan, Paul Auster considers both material and spiritual aspects. In his fictional novel “MR. VERTIGO”, the author uses some of the major characters to point out the different elements of the Dream,

for example

- Master Yehudi seems to symbolize the moral and spiritual aspects of the Dream
- Mrs. Witherspoon appears to be a personification of the A. D. with the emphasis on the material aspect
- Walt Rawley is influenced by both characters, he has internalized both the moral aim of the Dream and the longing for material wealth

In order to analyse the way Auster describes the American Dream, it is, therefore, essential to have a closer look at the different characters.

- The master is quite a complex and ambivalent character. He represents the fan- tastic elements of the novel - the most obvious and important one is the feat Walt accomplishes under M. Y.’s influence, namely the ability to fly.

This feat can refer to various aspects, for example the idea of freedom is included. It also evokes several associations related to the American Dream, e.g.:

- the idea of leaving old surroundings and restrictions behind, of starting a new and better life
- the challenge of passing old frontiers (endeavour), of doing something generally considered as impossible7
- the feeling of a “spiritual uplift” (cf. p.124), which signifies hope and optimism, the possibility of broadening one’s horizons and of having a purpose in life.

But there are some more things about the master that are reminiscent of the American Dream. For example, he has managed to realize, for a short time at least, an ideal community (cf. the idea of a multicultural society). He has founded a farm on which an Indian woman (Mother Sioux), a black, ‘crippled’ boy (Aesop), a (white) orphan boy and a Jewish Hungarian (the master himself) are living together peacefully. They are just like a real family, up to the day when Aesop and Mother Sioux are brutally killed by some members of the Ku Klux Klan.8

This is a good example of how Auster mixes both a positive and negative view of the Dream: it can come true for a certain time, but it can easily be destroyed again. The dream can be turned into a nightmare.

- Marion Witherspoon is a character that complements the influence Master Yehudi exerts on Walt.

Mrs. W. is an independent woman; she is able to run a business on her own. She wants to make money: that’s the most important aim in her life. Walt has noticed that she is a materialistic person: “She saw me as a business opportunity, a dollar sign in the shape of a boy, and she knew that (...) [my career] was going to make her the richest woman in thirteen counties”9.

The material aspect is almost exaggerated: Marion Witherspoon is described as an ambitious person who is able to act quite egotistically if money is concerned: “(...) but it was always in the service of her own interests”; “[she wanted] to make sure I didn’t sneak away before she’d cashed in on my talent”.10

Mrs. W. is the person who awakes Walt’s hunger for material wealth and luxury (it’s her car, for example, Walt admires most).

However, the author doesn’t give a one-sided evaluation of the material aspects. In the course of the novel, Mrs. Witherspoon (as a materialist) has to sustain several set-backs. The accumulates lots of money, but this state of immense wealth never lasts very long. In the end, she is the owner of a chain of laundries - and well off again (this “nice profitable concern (...) had turned her into a wealthy woman again” (p.271).

Marion is a kind of ‘self-made woman’11: she has made something out of her life, she never loses courage even if she has lost her money. Mrs. Witherspoon goes her own way and she pursues her aim in life - that’s how she has achieved a certain degree of self-realization. This is also a major element of the American Dream: to make one’s personal dreams come true.

- Walt Rawley, the narrator, has experienced a lot - looking back, he tells the story of his life. When judging from the space covered by the description of the different phases of his life, it is easy to see that the time of his childhood is the most important one. This is the phase in which Walt learns to fly (= positive aspect: his dream of flying has come true for a certain time / until Walt reaches the age of puberty) and regains a “family”, a home where he feels at ease (but this again only lasts for a few years).

In my opinion, Walt’s life mirrors the author’s view of the American Dream. There are ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ - again and again, Walt’s hopes and joys are thwarted; he is disillusioned in many ways. He experiences a downfall from his life as “Walt the Wonder Boy” to a “beggar”12, but then he builds up a new existence as “Mr. Vertigo”. Yet again, this state doesn’t last very long ( there are many other ‘ups’ and ‘downs’, e.g.: Walt becomes an alcoholic, but he regains control over his life again; ...).

In the end, the material and spiritual aspects are balanced: Walt isn’t poor, but he hasn’t forgot the things the master taught him (proof: he writes the book! He has never forgotten the ‘good times’).

Of course, the novel contains both a positive and negative view of the American Dream (criticism and vindication). But when comparing “MR. VERTIGO” to Bob Dylan’s song, I got the impression that in Paul Auster’s novel, the negative aspects are often less stressed than this is the case in the protest (!) song.

For example, Bob Dylan criticizes that there is so much violence among people. Auster also includes some very brutal scenes in his book (killing of Aesop & Mother Sioux, of the Master, of Uncle Slim), but he treats Walt’s experience in the Second World War in a couple of short sentences13. Obviously, that’s not the point Auster wants to make. He doesn’t concentrate on specific “American” social problems like Dylan does (e.g. the right to buy and carry a gun). Aspects which are in the centre of Bob Dylan’s social criticism are often marginally mentioned by Auster (here: the fact that Master Yehudi carries a gun leads to his suicide → slight criticism?).

I’d like to finish this comparison by having a short look at the atmosphere created in the song “A HARD RAIN’S A GONNA FALL” and the novel “MR. VERTIGO”.

It has already been mentioned that Bob Dylan describes a sad world with only little (almost without) hope14, where despair and loneliness are predominant, whereas Paul Auster creates a rather mixed atmosphere with both happy and sad moments and situations. This ambivalence (with a slight tendency towards optimism) appears to be a thread which runs through Auster’s work: In his novel “MOON PALACE”, for example, some scenes can be found where a strong feeling of security and an impressing confidence in the power of the American Dream is expressed. I’d like to quote some short passages here, even if I run the risk of taking the sentences out of their context.

- “Unexpected things kept happening to me in [Central Park], things that seem almost impossible to me as I remember them now.” (p.58)
- “(...) once you throw your life to the winds, you will discover things you had never known before” (p.58)
- “(...) anything in this world was possible. There was consolation in this thought.” (p.62) - Even if the hero comes close to starving, “something always seemed to turn up at the last minute: I would find money on the ground (...).” (p.65)

Existential fear is unknown to the protagonist. By chance, he is even spared from being sent to Vietnam (cf. pp.75-81). Yet, Marco Stanley Fogg is aware of the dangers brought about by such a state of mind (as described in the above quotations):

- “(...) it allowed me to pretend that I was not as bad off as I really was”. (p.57)

Fogg feels that he is betraying himself, but nevertheless he is always rescued by some wonderful coincidence.

However, the positive impression prevails, hope remains and is predominant. *This is, in my opinion, the most important difference between Auster’s work and Bob Dylan’s lyrics.

But the two texts at issue also bear some similarity in what concerns the message conveyed by the author towards the ending of the song/the novel: both Paul Auster and Bob Dylan give an outlook on the future of the American Dream as they personally see it.

In the last stanza of his song, Dylan (i.e. the singer) expresses his intention: he wants to revive the American Dream by spreading his message among ‘all people’; just like a prophet, he will keep on criticizing the social evils and confronting people with them in order to raise people’s consciousness of these problems - he will “reflect rom the mountain so all souls can see it” (l.54). According to Dylan (or as I would interpret the last stanza of the song), this is the only way to make the American Dream live on.

Paul Auster’s novel has a similar ending: the protagonist intends to pass the Dream on to another person (just as it had once been passed on to him by the master - cf. p.277: “the next Wonder Boy”); he also wants to make sure that the Dream won’t die with him. That’s why he has written the book: “I had no doubt that I was doing something that had to be done, (...) I realize now that the book must have come to me in a dream [!]” (p.275). To Walt, the book is a means to spread the Dream.

The very last paragraph of MR. VERTIGO” reveals the positive concept of Man which can be found throughout the whole novel: “Deep down, I don’t believe it takes any special talent for a person to lift himself off the ground (...). We all have it in us (...).” (p.278).

Walt is convinced that human beings are able to change themselves (“You must learn to stop being yourself”), and this implies that they are even capable of changing the world to the better (i.e. of making the Dream come true).

Unlike Auster, Bob Dylan is sceptical about this point. In his opinion, it is hard to make people change their attitudes. Americans have to fight for improvement, and it is not sure whether they will be successful at once (“Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinking”, l.55). ==> see * on p. 9!

In my opinion, it is absolutely necessary to take into consideration the whole song and the whole novel in order to give a proper analysis of the two texts. There are various aspects to be found in them, and one has to read (especially Paul Auster’s novel) carefully so that nothing of the meaning is lost. [The singer’s intention included in the last stanza of the song, for example, could easily be missed in a superficial analysis of the lyrics.]

4203 words (including quotations and footnotes)

Kathrin Valerius * MSS 13b * März/April 1999.


1 all quotes taken from the first stanza of the song

2 Walt sometimes remembers Charles Lindbergh and the first flight across the Atlantic ocean. He really feels like exploring new frontiers!

3 Paul Auster: Mr. Vertigo, p. 198

4 the protagonist, Marco Stanley Fogg, is fond of the film Around the World in Eighty Days; he ‘disappears’ and lives in Central Park /N.Y.C for more than two weeks, walking around without anywhere to go; ... - there are many more examples to be found in the novel!

5 ⇔ J.T. Adams‘ vision of a “better and richer and fuller [life] for every man, with opportunity for each

according to his ability or achievement” !

6 cf. “Mr. Vertigo“: the killing of Mother Sioux and Aesop

7 „Ain’t nobody can fly, mister.(...) That’s what birds do.“ -> Walt to Master Yehudi on the very first page of the novel

8 There is another episode in the story where the rather positive view of the American Dream is qualified, namely the death of Master Yehudi. But even this scene is ambivalent: the master is dead - he was killed by Walt’s Uncle Slim out of pure greed for money - (and this implies that all the spiritual aspects of the dream are lost, they have been destroyed by the material aspects!), but nevertheless the reader feels that the positive values have been passed on to Walt, the master’s scholar. They have not been extinguished! (Cf. the ending of the novel: Walt thinks about teaching another little boy how to fly!)

9 Mr. Vertigo, p.98

10 op. loc.

11 cf. Benjamin Franklin

12 cf. p.215

13 cf. p. 263: “I didn’t distinguish myself as a soldier, but I didn’t disgrace myself either. I did my job, I avoided trouble, I hung in there and didn’t get killed. When they finally shipped me back in November 1945, (...)”

14 “I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow“, l.38

Excerpt out of 10 pages


Paul Auster vs. Bob Dylan
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Paul, Auster, Dylan
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Kathrin Valerius (Author), 1999, Paul Auster vs. Bob Dylan, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 8/3/2001


    Ein sehr gelungener Aufsatz

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